When the first members of the Swiss rescue team reached the summit ridge of the Eiger on Saturday morning, they began hacking a platform and fixing cables to the unstable rock. The worst problem of a rescue on the north face was anchoring the cables securely at the top so that men could be lowered to the trapped climbers. It was like trying to tie threads to the tipped edge of an ice cube.
Erich Friedli's longest cable was only 600 feet, or at least 150 feet less than the distance down to the red tent spotted on the north wall. And Friedli had to use 200 feet of the cable tying it around one of the cornices on the summit. In midafternoon he selected Robert Seiler from among the volunteers who offered to go down for a reconnaissance of the face and strapped him into a sling at the end of the cable. Seiler began his descent at three o'clock. From the valley, spotters hurriedly radioed to Friedli that he was coming down several hundred feet to the west of the red tent. But this was merely a reconnaissance mission, and Seiler was lowered all the way to the end of his tether, 400 feet down. He could see the tent below him and to his left. There were no signs of life. Carefully noting the exact position of the tent, he gave the signal for the upward haul. Soon, however, his shortwave radio began to fail, and he found himself wrenched upward when he did not want to be, and forced to stand for long periods on narrow ledges covered with ice and snow. It was more than two hours before Seiler reached the top, frostbitten and bruised, and he was sent down the west wall for medical attention.
Friedli moved the cable anchoring, and at 7:30 in the evening began a descent himself. Dangling slowly downward, his face lashed by ice crystals blown off the wall, he saw that he was still too far west; the anchorings would have to be changed again. Just before giving the order to haul him back, Friedli shouted down the face, and back came a voice saying something Friedli could not understand. But now he knew that at least one man was still alive on the wall. Friedli was lifted back to the top at 8:15.
The men of the Munich Mountain Guard had now reached the summit, and were already digging out a work platform precisely over the fall line to the red tent. They hoped to make a final attempt to reach the stranded men by moonlight, but a sharp, cold wind hit the summit, the temperature dropped to a little above zero, and there were freeze-up problems with the equipment. While the rescuers were scraping their sleeping quarters out of the icy overhang, a final volunteer clambered up to the ridge—Walter Seeger, a young architect and former rope-mate of Nothdurft, who had walked up the railroad tracks, forced the west wall alone as night fell and, after climbing 10,000 feet in a single day, announced that he was ready to assist. His arrival brought the number of rescuers to 50. It would not be even one too many.
At dawn on Sunday, mountain guard leader Ludwig Gramminger began laying out the cable system for new descents. The main problem was to anchor a large, drum-type winch on the shifting ice cap. Gramminger tied it to the porous rock of the cornice with cables, wound another holding cable around a big block of ice and as a final safety measure added several loose ropes that the rescuers could hold while they scratched secure stances into the ice with their crampons.
For all his deep respect for Gramminger and the men of the mountain guard, Friedli had serious misgivings about the winch. Under stress it might tear loose and hurtle down the cliff, impartially taking rescuers and rescued to their deaths. And even if the winch remained in place, Friedli doubted that it was geared low enough to enable its operators to haul up the men below. With his usual taciturnity, and strictly on the basis of his own forebodings, Friedli ordered a work gang to extend a level path parallel to the ridge on the south side of the peak. If the winch failed to work, old-fashioned, dependable manpower, using this path, could take over the pulling operation.
The tentative plan was to lower a man past the red tent and down to Longhi, give him first aid and haul him up to the tent where, it was assumed, the other three climbers must be marooned. Other rescuers would then go down the cable and bring the four men, one by one, to safety on the ridge.
Gramminger and Friedli selected Alfred Hellepart, an old hand at mountain rescues and a man of tremendous strength and courage, to make the first descent. Gramminger fixed his friend to the end of the cable, covered Hellepart's head with a white plastic helmet, attached a rucksack to his back and sent him over the side. It was exactly 8 o'clock in the morning when Hellepart began moving down the mountain into aloneness. As he walked slowly backward on the 50� angle of the summit ice field, he set about preparing himself psychologically. From long experience Hellepart knew that one had to purge one's mind of all outside thoughts: the entire concentration had to be on the job at hand. One could not think at all of oneself: the slightest glimmer of fear could be deadly. Nor could he allow his thoughts to drift back to Munich, to his wife and 11-year-old son. From this minute on, family and self must be forgotten, until he had succeeded or failed in his rescue mission.
When he had gone 250 feet, almost to the end of the ice field, he heard Friedli telling him by radio to make himself secure on his crampons; the cable had to be disconnected from the winch and joined to the next 300-foot length by a frog coupling. Hellepart waited until the go-ahead came from the top, backed over the last few feet of the snow field, and found himself looking down the vast sweep of the north wall. For a moment he felt wild panic. An indescribable sense of abandonment came over him; he could no longer see the men on the top, and instinctively he looked up at the quarter-inch cable spinning up into the mists like a thin strand of cotton thread. Below him the north wall fell endlessly away, down and down and down, black and menacing, broken only by a few insignificant snow ledges.
Dangling from the cable, he gulped for air and almost forgot what he had come for. Just then the voice of Gramminger broke in on the radio. "You are doing fine, Alfred," the calm voice said. "Everything is secure for you. Keep control of yourself, and remember that there are men on the wall depending on you for their lives." The soothing words brought composure back to Hellepart, and he gave the order to continue letting the cable down. Off to his right he could see a black rift, one of the exit cracks leading to the White Spider. He made a short traverse to the crack and began wriggling his way obliquely downward. Two thousand feet below him he could see the morning mists walking up the mountain. He had to hold himself to the wall again while another 300-foot roll of cable was attached above. After a hundred more feet of his descent he went on the air to tell Friedli that he was coming in sight of The Spider. During that brief conversation he heard another human voice, barely audible at first, then growing louder and coming from the east.